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If there’s one step you shouldn’t skip in your skincare routine, it’s exfoliating. “By removing the outermost layer of dead skin cells, you can unclog pores, which, in turn, can improve and prevent acne,” explains Dr. Peterson Pierre, a board-certified dermatologist. “Exfoliation can make your skin softer and smoother while evening out your skin tone.”
But if you have sensitive skin, you know that exfoliation can come with some pretty irritating side effects—namely redness, itchiness, and tightness. The good news? You can totally exfoliate sensitive skin if you use the right product. According to Dr. Pierre, you’re better off with a chemical one over a physical one. “The latter involves mechanical friction which can really irritate the skin and lead to redness,” he says. “Chemical exfoliation breaks the bonds between the cells, which makes that dead skin layer easier to wash away.”
Whichever exfoliator you choose, Dr. Pierre recommends starting off by exfoliating no more than once a week. “After several weeks, if your skin is tolerating it well, you can gradually progress to two or three times a week,” he says. And of course, make to follow up with your favorite face cream.
Ready to enjoy a clearer, smoother complexion sans irritation? Below, we’ve rounded up the best exfoliators for sensitive skin.
Best Overall: Farmacy Honeymoon Glow AHA Resurfacing Night Serum
This exfoliating night serum is a dream for sensitive skin. It’s formulated with a blend of gentle alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), and flower acids to get rid of dead skin cells and minimize dark spots without causing any irritation. It’s also chock-full of hydrating and smoothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and honey. Byrdie commerce editor Avery Stone can attest—she loves how healthy, youthful, and clear her skin looks after using this serum, as well as how quickly it absorbs into her skin.
Best Budget: The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA
Dr. Pierre is a fan of this budget-friendly exfoliator for sensitive skin. “It contains lactic acid and hyaluronic acid, a good combination to minimize redness and irritation,” he says. The gentle formula targets uneven tone, clogged pores, and irregular texture. With regular use, you can expect to see brighter, smoother skin.
Best Drugstore: e.l.f. Cosmetics Gentle Peeling Exfoliant
You don’t have to shell out major money to find an effective yet gentle exfoliator for sensitive skin—simply head to the drugstore and pick up this version for a glowier complexion. Papaya, tangerine, and licorice extracts do a great job of sloughing off dead skin cells without being harsh on sensitive skin.
Best Splurge: SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight
Sometimes, a skincare product is worth the splurge, and that’s certainly the case when it comes to this SkinCeuticals exfoliator. “It combines glycolic acid with phytic acid, natural oils, and botanicals to soothe and hydrate the skin,” notes Dr. Pierre. Plus, it’s free of alcohol, fragrance, and dye, all ingredients that can irritate sensitive skin.
Best for Dry Skin: First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads
Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that works to exfoliate the skin. Its molecule is slightly larger than glycolic acid, meaning it works a bit slower and doesn't penetrate the skin's outermost layer as easily.
One of the most convenient ways to exfoliate is using a peel pad—and these just so happen to be ideal for dry, sensitive skin. They contain glycolic and lactic acids to exfoliate away dead skin cells, as well as lemon peel to brighten and Indian gooseberry to even out tone. Some reviewers say that there's enough liquid in one pad for two uses, so you may be able to cut the pads in half and get more for your money.
Best for Oily Skin: AmorePacific Treatment Enzyme Peel
Keep oiliness at bay with this exfoliating powder cleanser that is gentle enough for sensitive skin. The star ingredients are a probiotic enzyme derived from green tea and papaya enzymes, which work together to get rid of dulling dead skin cell buildup while also soothing skin.
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
Alpha-hydroxy acids are a group of acid compounds, most often derived from plant-based sources, which work to exfoliate the skin. They come in a variety of types (like glycolic and lactic acid) and differ in size, and subsequently, penetration and potency.
Taking care of sensitive, acne-prone skin can be tricky. Enter this lightweight exfoliating serum. A combo of AHAs (glycolic, tartaric, lactic, and citric) slough off dead skin cells, while salicylic acid (BHA) unclogs pores, and raspberry fruit extract protects skin against free radicals and soothes irritation.
Marla Rene Beauty & Co. Pomegranate and Papaya Hydro Derma Exfoliating Mask
Regularly exfoliating can help reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation. And this exfoliating face mask is a solid option for anyone with sensitive skin who’s looking to fade dark spots. Papaya and pomegranate fruit extracts gently get rid of dead skin cells so younger and more radiant skin can come to the surface. On top of that, vitamin C provides antioxidant protection against hyperpigmentation-causing free radicals so you can prevent new dark spots from forming.
Best for Beginners: Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Lotion Exfoliant
New to the whole exfoliating game? Try this easy-to-use chemical exfoliator, which is perfect for beginners (and for sensitive skin). Its formula contains 8% glycolic acid, which is then combined with super-soothing and hydrating plant extracts and oils. That means you get all of the skin-clearing and brightening benefits of an exfoliator with none of the irritation that can come from harsh formulas. Simply smooth a dime-size amount onto your face after cleansing.
Best Exfoliating Pads: Neogen Dermalogy Real Cica Pad
It’s time to say goodbye to unnecessary irritation caused by harsh exfoliation. These peel pads are formulated with a slew of gentle acids to get rid of dead skin cells as well as “cica” technology to calm sensitive skin. Cica stands for centella asiatica, a medicinal herb used to help improve skin barrier function and keep irritants out. Users note how smooth their skin feels after use, adding that the pads help them maintain clear skin without causing any redness.
Best Scrub: Renée Rouleau Mint Buffing Beads
While scrubs are typically not recommended for sensitive skin, this is the one exception. A favorite of Byrdie associate editor Holly Rhue, this scrub uses natural jojoba beads, which are round and non-abrasive, to manually get rid of dead skin cells and reveal healthier, smoother skin.
If you're going to use a physical scrub, Dr. Pierre recommends that you opt for one with jojoba beads (like this one) because they're rounded and non-abrasive, which minimizes the chances of irritation. Also, try to avoid microbeads because of their sharp edges.